A coalition of advocacy groups and news organizations is asking an Illinois appellate court to safeguard Web users' right to comment anonymously.
"Should the courts deprive Internet speakers of their anonymity without appropriate safeguards, the uninhibited and robust exchange of ideas that has sprung up on news Web sites will be chilled," the groups argue in a friend-of-the-court brief. Organizations signing on to the brief include the Citizen Media Law Project, Gannett Co., Hearst Corporation, Illinois Press Association, Online News Association, Online Publishers Association, Public Citizen, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Tribune Company.
The case stems from comments left on the Ottawa Publishing Company's mywebtimes.com, a site for the Ottawa, Ill. newspaper The Times. Last year, the paper reported about the efforts of local couple Donald and Janet Maxon to add rooms to their house and turn it into a bed and breakfast.
Users posted comments about the Maxons, which the couple alleges libeled them. One commenter, Mary1955, wrote "Money under the table?" Another commenter, FabFive, wrote statements like "The Maxons haven't played it straight ... " and "The bribe has continued ..."
The Maxons sought an order forcing the newspaper to reveal both commenters' identities -- although it later dropped the case as to the user with the screen name Mary1955.
The newspaper opposed the request, arguing that the couple hadn't alleged sufficient facts to make out a realistic libel case. The trial judge, Eugene Daugherity, agreed with the paper. He found that the statements complained about were opinions and, therefore, not libelous.
The Maxons then appealed to the Third District Appellate Court of Illinois, which is currently considering the case.
The organizations that filed the friend-of-the-court brief asked the appeals court to "follow the strong consensus that is emerging among federal and state courts in other jurisdictions" and rule that "would-be plaintiffs must provide notice and make a substantial legal and factual showing of the merits of the underlying claim" before they are entitled to learn commenters' identities.
That same issue is at the heart of other disputes throughout the country. In New York, the anonymous blogger who insulted model Liskula Cohen has likewise argued that his/her identity should be protected because Cohen wouldn't be able to prevail in a libel suit. The blogger argues that comments about Cohen were opinion, and not the kind of verifiable facts that could result in a libel finding.
So far, courts in at least eight jurisdictions -- including Arizona, California, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas and the District of Columbia -- have said that online commenters are entitled to safeguards before being unmasked.